The recently held elections in two states and a union territory present an opportunity to reflect on the three parties involved in the contests. The Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party are the two polity-wide/coalition-leading parties in India, pitted against each other at the national level and also in the states where regional parties are still weak like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The Aam Aadmi Party, a ten-year-old party, now poised to be designated as a ‘national’ party despite having tasted power so far only in Delhi and Punjab, has shown greater inclination and resolve than any other aspiring regional party to mark its presence as a viable alternative to the two polity-wide parties.
For the Congress, the three elections in Himachal Pradesh were probably the first ones after independence when the Gandhi family was not actively involved/visible during the campaign. Only Priyanka Gandhi had a presence in the electoral process, more in strategising than addressing a few meetings. Rahul Gandhi on his Bharat Jodo Yatra completely shunned the campaign meetings; he did not even make any state specific political statements.
Most of the party’s other Delhi-based ‘national’ leaders; even the ones from concerned states, also stayed away or were not engaged as alleged by Anand Sharma. For many party stalwarts, walking with Gandhi for a few days seemed like a better career choice than slogging in the electoral arena. It was left to the state-based leaders like campaign-in-charge Sukhvinder Singh, state unit president Pratibha Singh, leader of the opposition in the outgoing assembly Mukesh Agnihotri and others to take responsibility and mobilise the people on issues of unemployment, rising prices and corruption, for which they blamed the BJP’s ‘double-engine government’. The party made ten lucrative poll promises including the creation of one lakh jobs, Rs 1,500 to women and 300 free units of electricity. The promise to restore the Old Pension Scheme seemed to bring in the electoral dividend, given that a large segment of the state’s population is in government jobs.
The BJP did make its quota of seductive poll promises, as has become the norm now in India, but was unable to overcome anti-incumbency and rebellion by disgruntled party leaders who failed to get tickets (and there were many). Neglect of senior leaders like former chief minister Prem Dhumal also hurt the party, as the BJP lost all five seats from his Hamirpur district. Leadership of the outgoing chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, his style of bureaucracy-oriented governance, charges of corruption in the government and an inability to connect with people were also issues.
The very fact that the BJP put up a spirited campaign despite the odds, the biggest one to change the state’s custom of periodic transition of power, and came so close to the Congress in vote percentage terms (0.9%, overall difference of 37,974 votes) is credible. It is obvious that Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning intensely and asking for votes in his own name rather than the party candidate (reminiscent of Indira Gandhi), and reminding the voters about his old connection with the state in the 1990s, did work in the party’s favour. The AAP realised very early during the campaign that the Congress still had a strong presence in the state. This explains why after initial involvement, the party leadership shifted its attention and resources to Gujarat – a wise decision, as the party polled a mere 1.01% of the vote in Himachal.
Like in Himachal, it was also left to the state unit of the Congress to take on the full-throttled onslaught of the BJP and also AAP in Delhi and Gujarat. The latter two parties drafted the services of their top leaders Narendra Modi and Aravind Kejriwal respectively, making them the faces of the party campaign as in Himachal. Senior cabinet ministers visited Gujarat and major announcements related to developmental projects were made. In terms of resources also, the Congress being out of power in the state was no match to the BJP.
Worse, the factionalised local party units in Gujarat failed to show the required intensity and sense of purpose in the fray. This, when in 2017 the party had won 77 (as against BJP’s 99) seats and there were 30 seats where the winning margin was less than 2.5%. Instead of building on the spurt, the party unit remained inert and seemed to be hoping against hope that 27 years of BJP incumbency would give a chance to it in a bipolar polity. ‘Silent campaign’ was a flawed strategy and Congress was relegated to 17 seats with 27% vote, whereas BJP won a record 156 seats with 52.5% vote.
CSDS poll surveys have shown that the Congress has been steadily losing its traditional core social constituency of KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) as barring Muslims, other communities have drifted towards the BJP. In this election also, the BJP won 23 out of 27 reserved seats for STs, 11 seats out of 13 seats reserved for SCs and 48 out of 54 seats having sizeable OBCs voters. The desertion of Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore dented the Congress’s newly acquired support among the Patels and OBCs respectively. A segment of the Muslim and lower caste vote also went to AAP, which managed to get an impressive 13% vote and five seats mostly in the rural constituencies, otherwise a Congress stronghold.
While the BJP raised the issue of national security and invoked Hindu-Gujarati identity, the AAP was not behind with its Tiranga Yatra and Kejriwal’s call to put the photos of goddesses on Indian currency. To overcome anti-incumbency and people’s anguish over unemployment, price rise and corruption in the CSDS poll survey, the BJP not only sacked the entire council of ministers along with the chief minister months before the election but also did not give tickets to 45 sitting MLAs including former chief minister Vijay Rupani, former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel, the speaker of the outgoing assembly and many cabinet ministers. There were 45 new candidates put up by the party, out of which 43 won. The party gave tickets to 19 Congress rebels also. Given the decades-old colossal hold of the Modi-Shah duo, the rebel factor did not play a detrimental role despite the major shakeup/purge, a stark difference from Himachal.
The municipal council elections in Delhi went the AAP way, though the incumbent BJP fared well also. The Congress seems to be out of contention for years to come due to its continuing decline in the recent elections. The AAP, while in power in Delhi since 2015, has shifted its focus from the middle class to the lower-middle and lower classes, and has gained from the direct delivery of the public goods and services and freebies, something which has helped BJP also to overcome the electoral challenges the party has faced in the past in the states like Uttar Pradesh where elections happened after demonetisation and the GST fiasco and more recently after the mishandling of the second wave of the pandemic.
Millions of migrants living in slums and unauthorised colonies have turned into core social constituencies for AAP. Its claim to better the state of schools and hospitals have takers among lower middle classes who also number a lot in the capital city. Neither the BJP nor the Congress has a local leader who can match Kejriwal’s popularity in Delhi. AAP has also been adept, like the BJP, in using the media – print, electronic and social – to promote itself.
What do these results mean for 2024?
With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections barely 1.5 years away, can the three elections be witnessed as precursors to the electoral trends likely to emerge at national level? Probably not, considering the following factors: First, after uninterrupted 17 Lok Sabha and 388 assembly elections, Indian voters have become sophisticated enough to make a distinction between the state and national (and local) level elections. Second, after phases of states’ reorganisation, every state comes across as a ‘mini-democracy’ having its own electoral specificity, making any generalisation at an all-India level unpredictable until and unless the analysis is based on cross-state comparison. Third, there are as many as nine states including five big states (three from the Hindi belt) which are going to have assembly elections next year, much closer to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections – Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana. They will likely give a better inkling of the big picture.
Finally, the results have once again proven the continued dependency of the BJP over the popularity of the prime minister, even in state elections, as the party state leadership has weakened considerably in recent years. However, the formidable election machine of the BJP fuelled by immense resources and backing of the Sangh gives a head start to the party over its rivals. The AAP is another party on the move, always calculating in which state it can take advantage of the Congress’s weakness, so as to emerge as an alternative to the BJP. Meanwhile, the Congress national leadership remains either oblivious to its terminal decline or simply lacking in political will. As of now, the party leadership remains immersed in its non-political yatra whose political objectives, if any, remain unclear. What else explains the rationale behind Rahul Gandhi skipping polarised Gujarat?
Ashutosh Kumar teaches in the Department of Political Science, Panjab University. Views expressed are personal.